Saturday

23rd Feb 2019

EU leaders spend ill-tempered evening on Greece, migrants

  • “If this is your idea of Europe you can keep it" - PM Renzi (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

EU leaders gathered for what turned out to be their most ill-tempered summit in years on Thursday, exposing the fragility of member-state relations on key issues of the day: Greece and migration.

They started off the evening with a two-hour discussion on Greece in a debate that saw the Dutch leader say that if no deal is reached on Saturday – the new deadline – then it is time to think of next steps.

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  • Cameron took the floor for less than 10 minutes while none of his colleagues spoke on Britain's EU issue.

They also refused to discuss the substance of a Greek deal – currently stalling on issues such as VAT levels – and refused to take it back up to a political level by having another summit of euro leaders.

The exchange saw European Council President Donald Tusk tell Alexis Tsipras it's “game over” while the Greek leader spoke of his nation being humiliated.

Outside the room, briefing journalists, the Bulgarian leader Boyko Borissov complained that Athens was using up all the political oxygen.

"They are our neighbours, I respect them, but we also have problems we want Europe to hear about, it is not only [their problems],” he said.

But the Greek exchange paled in comparison to the discussion on migration which saw the presidents of the commission and council fall out over of the substance of proposals on migration.

Tusk was pushing for an agreement on proposals to relocate 40,000 migrants across member states to be taken by consensus while Juncker insisted on decisions being taken by a qualified majority vote.

The two presidents also disagreed over whether the scheme should be voluntary or mandatory.

There were lengthy discussions on how to reach the target if it was only voluntary (as was agreed) and on what consensus means and which member states deserved to take fewer migrants.

Meanwhile Italian PM Matteo Renzi, who has long been asking other states for help with the thousands of asylum-seekers who arrive at his country's shores from North Africa, lashed out at his colleagues.

“If this is your idea of Europe you can keep it,” he said, according to Italian media. “Either there’s solidarity or we are wasting time… If you want a voluntary agreement, you can cancel the whole thing; we’ll do it by ourselves.”

The signs that the commission's proposal would be controversial were already apparent ahead of the summit. Eastern European states in particular complained about having a 'binding' key that would see migrants distributed according to GDP and population size.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is generally cautious in her statements, noted after the five-hour discussion: "With the migration question we are facing the biggest challenge for the European Union that I have seen during my term in office".

After the meeting, Juncker, a veteran of EU politics, played down reports of the dispute. "Don't believe those who are tweeting," he said.

"There was no conflict between me and Donald (Tusk)," he added though he also admitted that even if there was one he wouldn't tell journalists.

He also pointed out that there must be a more "suitable" way for the EU to conduct business noting that "I am awake but tired" after having only got three hours sleep on Wednesday evening and with the summit on Thursday finishing at 3am.

Sources said that tempers frayed to such an extent that a presentation by British leader David Cameron on his plans for an referendum on EU membership – a profoundly important question for the bloc – eased tensions.

Cameron took the floor for less than 10 minutes while none of his colleagues spoke on Britain's EU issue.

Tusk remarked that "the talks will now get under way" and said that Cameron "did not present detailed proposals" with diplomats noting that the UK leader does not want to pin himself down to an EU reform list in case he does not manage to see it through.

Tusk also noted that the "fundamental values of the EU are not for sale".

The issue will be dealt with when EU leader meet in December.

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